What does it mean if something is Socratic? Socratic irony is one of a variety of types of irony used in writing and other forms of media. And once you understand what it is, you’ll be able to use it to your advantage in written work—as well as in real-world conversations.

Here’s our short and sweet guide to Socratic irony, plus examples and a few best practice tips for using it in your writing. 

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What Is Socratic Irony?

Socratic irony is a type of verbal irony that uses feigned ignorance to guide someone in a particular direction. Because it’s a back and forth exchange, it is most commonly found in dialogue between two or more characters. It’s also a popular interviewing technique, particularly in investigative journalism.

This form of irony is credited to Socrates himself, whose Socratic method of teaching used these false professions of ignorance to point out flaws in his students’ philosophical thinking and help them navigate their way to the correct response. It was so effective that it remains an essential tool in written and educational works, despite the fact that Socrates himself didn’t actually leave any writing behind.

Its strategic use in writing can help illuminate new ideas and plot devices, using dialogue as a vehicle for discovery and sending both character and reader down the right path. And as with all forms of verbal irony—where the character says one thing when they mean another—it’s a smart and subtle way to get your point across and reveal inconsistencies in other lines of thinking.

Socratic Irony Definition

Care for a shorter definition?

Socratic irony is when one person pretends that they don’t know what they’re talking about, with the express purpose of illuminating flaws in what the other person is saying.

Done well, Socratic irony can be a useful tool for leading characters and readers to correct conclusions. And even when the character doesn’t connect the dots, the reader is still able to witness the challenging of ideas and make more informed opinions about what’s really going on.

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Socratic Irony Examples

If you’re looking for examples, the best place to start is actually somewhere that you might not have expected: The Daily Show.

The Daily Show presents real news, but often with satirical interviews that poke fun at people who are (willfully or not) misunderstanding the situation and coming to incorrect and laughable conclusions. These interviews are rich in Socratic irony, with the interviewer merely pretending to take the interviewee’s views seriously and holding a dialogue based on that false pretense.

What makes this use of the device so effective is that the audience is in on the joke. In this way, it serves to heighten the humor in these exchanges and highlights just how misguided the interviewee actually is. And it doesn’t matter that the subject rarely if ever finds their way to the truth, since the irony is being used for the purpose of entertaining viewers—not for true educational purposes.

An older example can be found in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In the classic novel, characters can be found sharing views that are inherently incorrect, particularly in the context of race. Because we the readers know that these views are false—and know that Twain isn’t trying to say that they’re true—we get to a deeper meaning behind the characters’ beliefs and the life experiences that have led them there.

How to Use Socratic Irony in Writing

If you want to use Socratic irony in your writing, you have to know when and how it makes sense as a literary device.

The easiest place to use Socratic irony is in dialogue. Try it out in scenes where one character is attempting to get another character to reveal a truth, such as in a courtroom or an interrogation. You can also use it in the same way that Twain used it, though this is a bit trickier to accomplish since you must be able to make strong and accurate predictions about your audience and what they know and believe.

Before attempting to use this device, ask yourself if it’s the right device for what you’re trying to achieve. It definitely has a place in writing (and can be incredibly effective when used properly), but it’s not always the right form of irony for the job—or even the right stylistic tool in general. The best way to know when to use it? Expose yourself to as many examples as you can find, starting with the ones mentioned above.

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Written by:

Laura Mueller